His colorful art—pieced together in the narrative, storytelling tradition—have been exhibited in museum galleries throughout the country.

By Samantha Hunter
September 02, 2020
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Michael A. Cummings quilting on his sewing machine
Credit: Courtesy of Craft in America Organization

For Michael A. Cummings, his work in quilting has brought no shortage of accolades. Over the past 30 years, he's appeared in notable collections across the country including the Brooklyn Museum, the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and several commissions by the U.S. State Department through its Art in Embassies program. Even Whoopi Goldberg collects his quilts.

And yet surprisingly, this was not his first calling. Initially, he aspired to be a painter. "I came into quilting from a painter perspective," says Cummings. "Color, brush, canvas—all of that was in my mind because that's what I wanted to do." When he moved to New York in 1970, he found himself immersed in the art world—Alexander Boksenberg, Louise Nevelson, and Norman Lewis—showcasing all types of mixed media. That's when he discovered Romare Bearden's collages photographed to a grand scale. "So I tried doing that," explains Cummings, "and that was sort of like a beginning and a good foundation to transfer over to my appliqué quilts." When he began making quilts, he pieced them together by hand; with better practice and faster precision, he taught himself how to work on the sewing machine—setting a prime example for anyone of the craft.

"African Jazz" quilt by Michael A. Cummings
Credit: Karen Bell

Finding Inspiration

There are two distinguishing qualities of Cummings' quilts: the Afro-centric subject matter steeped in cultural history of the diaspora as well as his innovative use of color. He works exclusively with appliqué, incorporating layer after layer of fabric, to render an image. He uses African prints, traditional gingham, checked patterns, and black and white, ultimately using fabric in a similar fashion to the way a painter would use paint to create rich texture and color. 

"To begin a quilt, I have to be inspired by something," says Cummings. In the '50s and the '60s art world, there was hardly any mention of African American history, he explains. That's when he discovered the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is a historical depository of books on African American history, and started reading about the Harlem Renaissance—the literature, the artists, the actors, and entertainers. "I wanted to try and translate that excitement in reading about certain personalities and put that into my quilts," he says.

Some of his best quilts have come out of working and reworking a single concept, which is what he calls his series. His largest series, called "African Jazz Series" done in 1990, encompasses 12 quilts, all inspired by a black and white photograph that he discovered in a poster store in Greenwich Village. "I couldn't go out of the store without buying it," he recalls. "I knew I was going to do something with it, but I didn't know what." Eventually, this photographed trio of musicians—combined with his knowledge of Yoruba dance costumes, animals, birds, and plants—resulted in a his now iconic quilt measuring nine feet tall and six feet wide.

Shirley Chischolm quilt by Michael A. Cummings
Credit: Christopher Burke Studios

Storytelling Through Stitches: The Past, Present, and Future

Consideration of Cummings' body of work brings African American history to the forefront of conversation. His quilts commemorate historical events and famous figures as much as they comment on them: Josephine Baker and the Jazz Age, Harriet Tubman, the Henrietta Marie slave ship, and Shirley Chisholm (a woman of many firsts—the first African American congresswoman, first African American to run for president, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination).

Has the Black Lives Matter movement served as inspiration? To this question, Cummings reflects, "It inspires me, but because of my age—I'll be 75 this year—I've seen and heard the Civil Rights March, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, as a series of people over all these decades that have also tried to promote and get justice for all. I feel that I'm adding something to the whole movement, to add to the conversation."  And, in the case of Cummings' quilts, this is quite literally written in the fabric. "On my quilts, these days, I'm also writing text," he says. Quoted subjects show some of history's greatest orators—James Baldwin, President Barack Obama, and a quilt he recently completed called "I've Known Rivers" a poem by Langston Hughes. "I'm kind of adding a voice to my quilts by way of text," he explains.

On Being Self-Taught

Cummings says that, in the beginning, it's best to start small and simple. "And you're supposed to start off with your favorite colors, something that you enjoy working with," he suggests, "so it doesn't become labor intense." Follow his lead, and look to artists of other media for inspiration. "If you don't want to use traditional patterns, I always tell people," he further suggests, "if you have a favorite artist like Georgia O'Keeffe, Van Gogh, Picasso or whatever—a simple painting that has color and shape and form—then you could kind of cut some fabric itself and try to duplicate that."

Each new quilt presents a new story to be told, as Cummings elaborates: "When people ask me, 'Well, which one is your favorite?' I say, 'Well, the one I'm doing right now is my favorite.'"

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